Divorcing Parents: Becoming Bitter or Becoming Better

Ann Butler was in her late-20s when her parents finally decided to divorce, but she recalls growing up in the middle of her parent’s conflict-filled relationship. Though she had long wished for their tense union to end, she realized once it happened that she didn’t like it.

“I waited a long time to get married because I didn’t want a repeat of what happened to my parents’ marriage,” said Butler, an elementary school guidance counselor.  Ann waited until she was 28-years old to get married, but her relationship ended in a divorce just like her parents’.

“I know for my children [the divorce] was difficult because they didn’t want us to get divorced. I think [the range of emotions] depends on the child,” Ann said. “Parents need to remember the other person is half of who your child is and regardless of the situation the child still loves that parent.”

Forty percent of all American children experience the breakup of a parent’s marriage, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Oklahoma has the fifth highest divorce rate in the country. Last year in Tulsa County alone 1,510 divorces with minor children were filed.

“Divorce is a traumatic event. It’s very stressful for everyone involved,” said Carrie Little of Tulsa’s Family & Children’s Services. “What happens a lot of times is parents are so angry with one another they don’t talk, and the child gets pulled in to the middle.”

In an effort to avoid putting the child in the middle, Tulsa County requires all parties seeking a divorce with small children to attend a seminar called “Helping Children Cope with Divorce.”  The four-hour seminar teaches divorcing couples healthy communication skills and ways to function as parents despite the divorce.

“I absolutely feel this class is beneficial and timely for people going through high- conflict divorces. We’re not trying to shame or blame anyone,” Little said.  “We’re simply trying to remind them that there’s a minor child involved in this adult situation and that we need to remember to protect them.”

Effects of Divorce

Studies show that children of divorced parents are “at greater risk of emotional and behavioral problems,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. These negative effects are more likely to arise if their parents are not cooperating and fighting in front of the children.

“One of the greatest things a parent can do is not badmouth the other parent. What I’ve seen that helps children are parents who work together. They may not get along in terms of being married, but outside of divorce they work together for their child,” said Butler, who conducts support group sessions for third- and fourth-grade students with separated, divorced or divorcing parents. Butler says kids with cooperative parents do not attend group sessions for long because they find the support they need at home.

While cooperating parents can help children adjust to the change in their family dynamic, another factor has an even bigger effect on how they adapt. Dr. Robert Hudson, clinical professor of Pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine, says at least 40 percent of children are what he terms “easy” children who exhibit resiliency and will adjust to divorce more easily than less resilient children. The other group is what he terms “not easy” children who are not resilient and will suffer when faced with major changes. Dr. Hudson says there are three major variables that help determine whether a child will be “easy” or “not easy”: temperament, cognitive ability and their environment.

“It all depends on how a child is wired. They are not difficult children, because the word ‘difficult’ assumes that they’re [not adapting] on purpose.  They have a slower processing speed,” Dr. Hudson said.  “Those not easy kids are not adaptable, so when there’s a major change in their life they don’t do well, and it takes them varying lengths of time to get over that.”

Coping with Divorce

One way to help along that process of adapting is through counseling. Whether through group or one-on-one counseling, Butler says it is beneficial for children to be in touch with their feelings. She says in order for a child to come to terms with their parents’ decision to separate, they must go through the grieving process, which will allow them to heal.

“It takes tremendous courage on a parent’s part to let your child go into counseling.  You know they’re going to be talking about what’s going on at home, and that can be very intimidating,” Butler explained.

Other options for helping children get in touch with their feelings include journaling or art. Recently, Family & Children’s Services added another class called “Rollercoasters” for children age 9- to 12-years old. The class is a companion class to “Helping Children Cope with Divorce” and seeks to “help children with divorced or divorcing parents identify and understand their emotions, develop problem-solving skills and strategies for staying out of parental disputes and learn to adjust to changing situations,” according to the website.

Avoiding Holiday Stress

One of the changing situations to which children must adjust is splitting their time between two households. While the courts may decide visitation schedules, the holiday season can get messy. Tulsa Attorney Michon Hughes says it is important to set up a detailed holiday plan early on.

“If you don’t have it clearly defined as to what will happen at Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas then there will be fighting,” Hughes said. “Especially around Christmastime, I get calls that someone is withholding visitation that was already set in a plan. That’s a problem because there’s nothing I can do about it on a holiday.”

Withholding visitation on those special days doesn’t just spoil a child’s holiday, it can also lead to a parent being held in contempt, which is punishable by a $500 fine and jail time. One way to avoid such harsh consequences, not to mention spoiling your child’s holiday, can be to simply have a discussion as a family about the schedule. Dr. Hudson suggests also taking your child’s opinion into account.

“One of the big problems with the court system is in an effort to be fair to both parents, the non-intended consequence is they make the child’s life not very easy.  This isn’t rocket science; just ask the children what they would like. Don’t let the courts decide where your child’s going to spend their birthday or Christmas,” Dr. Hudson said. “Parents need to put their petty feelings aside and be reasonable for the child’s sake.”

While adjusting to life after divorce can be stressful and difficult for all involved, the negative effects aren’t something that have to be dealt with forever. According to a 2002 study by psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington of the University of Virginia, many children experience short-term negative effects from divorce but those usually disappear within two years. A divorce may even be the means of growth and a strengthening of character according to Butler.

“I think any time we have a challenge, it becomes a part of who we are,” she said. “If we can gain acceptance of that challenge it makes us a stronger person. The choice that we face is we can become bitter or we can become better, and I think that choice determines how it impacts the rest of our lives.”

How to Help Your Child Adjust

Children often blame themselves for a parent’s divorce or believe they can fix it.  These 10 steps can help your child face the reality of the situation and adjust.

  1. Never force your children to take sides or involve them in an argument.
  2. Don’t criticize or fight with your ex-spouse in front of your child.  If your child overhears you arguing, explain that sometimes people say hurtful things when they are upset; however there are better ways to communicate your feelings.  Discuss your concerns with your ex when your child is not present.  It is not helpful to bring them into your arguments or adult discussions.
  3. Respect the relationship they have with the other parent. It is important to let your children show their love to both parents and spend time with each without feeling guilty. Provide your children with reassurance that both their parents still love them even though they may only be living with one parent at a time.
  4. Your children know more than you think they know – so talk with them early on and often.
  5. Create safety by listening and trying to understand their point of view. Don’t try to rescue, overcompensate (by doing or giving them things), or problem solve. The best thing you can do is listen as they express their feelings, without judgment.
  6. Be open about what is happening without giving too much unnecessary information. For example, “Your father and I are having problems and we need to separate because we cannot get along with each other.”
  7. Let your children know that it is not their fault and they cannot fix the problem.
  8. Do not blame your ex-spouse. This creates a problem with alliances. Your children need you to model healthy boundaries so they do not become co-dependent, feeling like they need to be responsible for another’s well being.
  9. Create a schedule. Children crave consistency; it is the way they feel psychologically and physically safe. Keep a routine, even amongst the transitioning between two households.
  10. Let them know they are loved and you are willing to listen and try your best to answer questions they have.
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